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OKLAHOMA CITY--As the game clock wound down in the second overtime inside a raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday night, a fan dressed in maroon held a large sign over his head. It's message was simple: "Be Legendary."
Texas A&M scored the most improbable victory in the history of the NCAA Tournament, overcoming a 12 point deficit in the final 40 seconds against Northern Iowa to win a double overtime thriller, 92-88. With the win, the Aggies advance to the Sweet 16 for a showdown with Oklahoma on Thursday. It will be A&M's third appearance in the Sweet 16.
A&M's win left Northern Iowa--and the nation--stunned. It also set off a wild celebration by the Aggie players, coaches and fans that ended with players going into the crowd for the Aggie War Hymn and national writers racing to the NCAA record books see just how miraculous the win was.
It was the largest comeback in the final minute of a game in NCAA Tournament history.
"That was the craziest game I have ever been a part of," said Alex Caruso. "How we played, how we came back, how they came back, how we tied it again...just an amazing game. This is what March is all about."
Prior to the comeback, Northern Iowa had provided the defining moment of March Madness with its buzzer-beating win against Texas in the first round. But A&M one-upped the Panthers in an unprecedented way.
The Aggies faced a 69-57 deficit after UNI's Jeremy Morgan sank a pair of free throws with 44 seconds remaining. The string of events that happened next may be the most unlikely, inspiring 40 seconds in A&M sports history.
-A&M (28-8) scored nine points in 22 seconds to cut the Northern Iowa lead from 12 to three.
-UNI had four turnovers in the final 29 seconds of regulation.
-The Aggies scored 70 points in the second half and overtime combined.
-After a breakaway dunk by UNI made it a five-point margin with 17 seconds remaining in regulation, Alex Caruso scored a huge and-one with 11 seconds to go to make it 71-69.
-Admon Gilder tied it at 71-71 with 1.9 on the clock after A&M's frenetic defense trapped UNI's Wes Washpun under the Aggie basket and forced a turnover.
When Washpun's last second heave missed, A&M players and fans simultaneously exhaled and celebrated as the game went into overtime.
It took another great escape in the first OT period for the Aggies to survive.
Northern Iowa hit three three-pointers in the frame and led 82-79 with 26 seconds remaining. But Caruso hit a layup and short jump shot to tie the game with six seconds left.
Photos by Thomas Campbell, courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.
Caruso, the gritty senior who has been one of the most impactful players in school history, finished with a season-high 25 points, one shy of his career mark.
Jones finished with 16 points, while Gilder added 11 and Tyler Davis finished with 10. Anthony Collins finished with six points, hitting a pair of three-pointers to keep A&M within shouting distance.
"We gave ourselves a chance because we didn't start selfishly jacking up shots, which can happen in that situation," said A&M coach Billy Kennedy. "A lot of it had to do with us having seniors on the floor. Alex Caruso, he plays that way every day in practice and games. That's how he plays. It was an amazing win."
Jalen Jones and Gilder staked the Aggies to a four-point lead a couple of minutes into the second overtime, and that's when the A&M defense took over. UNI's offense finally cracked, failing to make a single field goal in the second overtime,
It was a far cry from the first 39 minutes, 30 seconds of the game, when UNI dismantled the Aggies. The Panthers made nine three-pointers in regulation and spent the final moments enjoying a double-digit advantage. A&M, meanwhile, was frustrated into one of its poorest performances of the season early on. The Aggies scored just 22 points in the first half after shooting a woeful 22.2 percent.
But that didn't matter late in regulation.
A&M star Danuel House, who finished with 22 points, didn't score a field goal until there were just 25 seconds remaining in the game. But the determined senior hit a clutch three-pointer with 21 seconds left to make it a one-possession game and set the stage for Gilder's heroic steal and layup to tie it.
The Aggie locker room was bedlam postgame as players doused Kennedy in ice and players and coaches hugged, high-fived and even shed a few tears at the raw euphoria of it all. Written on the team's whiteboard was a simple word: "Believe."
"I still really don't know what happened," Kennedy said. "I don't know what the odds are on a situation like that, but people know about my faith, and all I can say is to God be the glory. I'm just so thankful for this moment."
In modern A&M history, there may not be a more jaw-dropping victory. Considering the win-or-go-home magnitude of the tournament and the sheer size of the late deficit, this team accomplished something that Aggie fans will talk about forever.
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."